5 Burning NBA Questions: The Pacific Division

The Pacific Division’s second half is a tale of two teams from one city. No one is catching either the Clippers or Lakers as the rosters of the other three — Warriors, Kings, Suns — stand. If you’re trying to build a case in those teams’ defense, just stop.

This is what commissioner David Stern dreamed of in December when a trade of Chris Paul from New Orleans to the Lakers was rejected like a shot in Serge Ibaka‘s airspace. That could have resulted in enough cap room to realize the owners’ great fear, Dwight Howard to the Lakers, and the run of titles in purple and gold to go with it.

Now we’ve got a situation where Staples Center isn’t big enough for the both of them and only a half-game separates the Clippers in first to the second-place Lakers. Playing out in front of the nation’s second-biggest media market is upstarts vs. veterans, new cool vs. old school. It’s lived up to the hype so far with the attitude around every Clips-Lakers showdown resembling a street fight in the City of Angels. How long will it stay a dead heat before one team pulls away?

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Things may appear perfect to the casual observer in Lob City, home of perfect weather and DeAndre Jordan‘s “got ’em” Twitter photo phenomenon, but the Clippers need a replacement for the injured Chauncey Billups. He was the bridge that allowed L.A. to think long-term success with a plan for a deep playoff run this season.

Even with a core of young stars in Blake Griffin and Jordan, the window isn’t completely open because Chris Paul still has options. Without an actual guarantee he’ll be back – outside of his word – L.A. would love to make moves before the March 15 trade deadline to go all out. Here’s the rub: Paul’s trade got them outsized expectations in the first place, but sending three players and a draft pick for him means the Clips have few poker chips to complement him with now.

Billups was the linchpin who could hold the lead at all times and take control on the floor once Paul needed rest. L.A. has two trade exceptions and could pilfer a veteran player for the minimum, but team executives have said they won’t compromise their long-term security for one season. Well, seeing as they already did by shipping a quarter of the team to get Paul for possibly one year, the second half will be question of which philosophy do they stick to: long or short term?

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Things center around the centers in Los Angeles and will continue to do so. Andrew Bynum said his knee “feels really, really good” to the L.A. Times this week after being hit against Oklahoma City in the last game of the first half. He played but six minutes in the All-Star Game, but his track record of injuries bears watching closer.

The looming question is always whether Bynum or Pau Gasol will even be the Lakers’ problems by the middle of March. Stopped in his bid to get Howard before, Los Angeles GM Mitch Kupchak has to make changes to make the Lakers a credible playoff threat. They crumple on the road (going from plus-four at home scoring to minus-six), and only Boston (5-9) has fewer road losses than L.A. (6-12) of teams in the top two in their division.

Unlike the Clippers, whose roster is bereft of more than one young player worth building around (and Bynum is creaky, at that), Kupchak has to see this as one of the last chances for a title with Kobe on the team and might opt to go all in for the short term by acquiring another scorer or even Howard himself, if the price is right.

They’re fun. In what sounds like the nicest knock ever, the Warriors are a fun team to watch if you’re not a diehard (Remember when they took down the Heat in overtime with Nate the Great running point in January?). If you’re a fan, though, fun becomes frustrating very quickly and maddening even faster because the same mistake that has felled Golden State for years — lack of defense — is still doing so. Teams shoot 45 percent against the Warriors, ninth-worst in the league. Reports from the Bay Area News Group and ESPN have specified the Warriors won’t send Monta Ellis to Orlando without Howard in return. That would bring defense to the Warriors, whose most notable sign of it this season was fouling Howard so many times he shot 39 free throws, an NBA record.

That strategy actually kept the game close, however, whereas the W’s defense the rest of the year has rarely benefited them. An unsung hero on that end has been Ekpe Udoh, who should be getting more than his 20 minutes per game in his second season. One of the league’s top shot blockers (1.67 per game), Udoh is the defender they need while not lacking the scoring punch (only 40 percent from the field) necessary to allow Mark Jackson to start him over Andris Biedrins.

Is this the end for Alvin Gentry? He got the job when Terry Porter didn’t want a team capable of running to sprint. Gentry wants the Suns to go out and run still behind Steve Nash‘s lead. There’s no doubt Nash is still crazy good, let alone just competent, in his role leading the Suns. Where things get sticky is whether Gentry can tune the team into rebounding better (26th in the league) for the final half of the season.

Marcin Gortat has been a revelation at center since he was traded from Orlando last year, and has grabbed 10.5 rebounds with his 15.9 points, far and away his career bests. The experiment of using Hakim Warrick at the three and Channing Frye at three and four has been a bust, however. When Frye came over from Portland, his shooting stretched the floor and allowed Nash room to dive in the paint. With his shooting, points and rebounds all down, Frye isn’t contributing the way he was expected to.

[RELATED: 5 Burning NBA Questions: The Central Division]

They may be in last place, but they’re Sacramento’s last-place team — and that’s something the fans will cling to the rest of this season. With a tentative new arena deal getting all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, coach Keith Smart gets a honeymoon period the rest of the season to tweak and experiment without impunity it would seem. Fans are already too overjoyed they still have the Kings to bemoan another awful squad.

The Kings’ question becomes next year. They’ll have another high draft pick to use and have Tyreke Evans to dangle as trade bait as he enters the last year of his rookie deal. DeMarcus Cousins may have contributed to coach Paul Westphal‘s firing a bit from his alleged “trade me” comments, but he’s balling — 16.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Cousins has the league’s third-highest offensive rebound rate, takes the league’s most charges (according to hoopdata.com) and is its sixth-best rebounder per game. They like to think of themselves as Oklahoma City in 2009-10 with a group of solid players they drafted, but how quickly does that happen?

What are the biggest questions marks in this division?

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